Large Protests Sweep Oman: The Beginning Of The Second Arab Spring?

A decade after the protests that occurred during the Arab Spring of 2011, the Sultanate of Oman is experiencing unrest that has drawn a violent police response as demonstrations have appeared around the state. Since Sunday, May 23rd, protestors have been demonstrating against the current economic and political conditions, including the recent rise in unemployment and corruption. The demonstrations began when protestors gathered outside the Labour Ministry’s office in the major port city of Sohar. The Royal Oman Police arrested the demonstrators soon after they began. Despite the police taking control of the situation initially, protests spread to other cities throughout Oman. In cities such as Sohar and Salalah, riot police were seen using tear gas and nightsticks. Despite a slight easing of tensions as police released protestors on Monday, the demonstrations still continue. Police are also making arrests including those recording the protests. It is unknown how many protestors remain in custody or have been injured due to the restricted media coverage of the demonstrations.

The Oman Labour Ministry acknowledged the issues of the demonstrators and tweeted that they were trying to “find new job vacancies and to solve the problems of the people who were fired,” however this didn’t offer much solace as the protests continued to grow. Later, the state media and the new Sultan of Oman, Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, who from the beginning of his reign promised reform in the economic sector, broadcast that employment remains “among the most important priorities.” At a meeting on Tuesday, the sultan also said, “we will listen to [the youth]” and proceeded to create over 30,000 jobs in the government. However, according to Nabhan al-Hanashi, Chairman for the Oman Centre for Human Rights, this seems to be a makeshift solution, since the people who are protesting “were waiting for reforms to take place a long time ago.” Therefore, it is clear that these demonstrations have been building over time and until changes are made, it may be possible that another Arab Spring could occur, as predicted by Oman’s former Minister Responsible for Foreign Affairs Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah.

Based on the events since the start of the protests and the motivations of the demonstrators, it appears that the response by the police is extreme. Although it is important to maintain peace and control, the police resorted to arresting protestors and establishing a military presence, which seemed to motivate the demonstrators even more. These demonstrations are the result of long-standing dissatisfaction with the current restrictive society which limits freedom of expression and enforces strict media controls. This means that the police presence will do little to deter the protests. If anything, the police reaction signifies fear of what the protestors could accomplish. As a result, if the government was willing to work directly with its people, making their voices heard, it could be the beginning of a real change.

Even with the dissatisfaction of the Omani people since before the time of the new sultan, the recent impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the government’s debt repayments have worsened the economic situation that many Omani people face. With the government in “tens of billions of dollars” of debt, according to the Times of India, it is unable to afford the welfare benefits that are common in other parts of the Arabian Gulf. Therefore, there is little relief for the citizens struggling to remain stable, and the Labour Ministry has been unable to provide the employment required. To make the conditions worse, foreign workers have been forced to look elsewhere for employment due to a program that places more Omani nationals to work, displacing a vital workforce population. As a result, the Omani people may feel they have to do something to improve their situation when the government is not doing enough during times when extra assistance is necessary.

Within the past few days, the Sultanate of Oman has been making strides to accommodate the demands of the protestors, by opening government jobs and increasing military recruitment. Yet, the demonstrations have been ongoing, and it is unclear when they will cease. It seems that the protests have been effective in pressuring the government for economic relief, but it is likely that the demonstrations may intensify before either side recedes. In terms of a second Arab Spring, it remains to be seen whether other states in the region could become swept up in the protests. With the growing discontent of those who are being silenced by the police, these demonstrations may start a movement similar to those of the past.

Sabina Marty